U.S. Department of Justice charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have been discovered through an administrative error in an unrelated court filing late Thursday night.
The filing from prosecutors for the Eastern District of Virginia on August 22 contains language indicating the government is seeking a future warrant for Assange's arrest "in connection with the charges" in a sex-crimes case for Seitu Sulayman Kokayi, who was charged with coercing and enticing an underage person to engage in unlawful sexual activity. Unsealed last week by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at George Washington University, the file says Assange "can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition."
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Eastern District of Virginia, referred to the mentions of Assange as an "administrative error" on Friday, and said the August case had nothing to do with WikiLeaks. He declined to comment further. However, multiple news outlets have reported that the Justice Department is preparing to prosecute Assange, citing people familiar with the matter in addition to the inadvertent court disclosure. The precise criminal charges he faces remain unclear.
U.S. authorities were allegedly prepared to seek charges against Assange in April 2017, but none were ever sought. Assange is currently located in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he's been living for years. If the charges against Assange are filed, it would require a multistep diplomatic and legal process to arrest and extradite him.
Justice Department officials have been investigating Assange since 2010, when thousands of confidential government files were posted on WikiLeaks from U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The recent disclosure comes as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continues to investigate the website while discerning potential links between Trump Administration officials and Russia's 2016 election interference. The site published thousands of emails during the election that were stolen by Russian intelligence officers as part of a disruption campaign against presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
WikiLeaks tweeted about the filing soon after the news broke, saying "US Department of Justice 'accidentally' reveals existence of sealed charges (or a draft for them) against WikiLeak's publisher Julian Assange in apparent cut-and-paste error in an unrelated case."
While the exact details are a mystery, the potential charges against Assange for publishing information of public interest—even if it was obtained by Moscow hackers—would be a critical development in the relationship between modern governments and freedom of the press, and may set a threatening precedent.
"The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed," Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, told CNN. "The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take."